Ten years of walkable cities

Jeff Speck updates his book, Walkable City, covering significant trends now and over the last decade.

For an overview of the big trends in walkability now and over the last decade, Jeff Speck’s Tenth Anniversary Edition of Walkable City is hard to beat. Some trend lines are not good, such as an ongoing spike in pedestrian deaths and a population decline in big cities, while other news is more salutary. “Neighborhoods from coast to coast are adding bike lanes, removing parking minimums, fighting highway expansions, and, most importantly, copying one another’s success,” Speck reports. 

For the few urbanists who have never read Walkable City, it was the nation’s best-selling urban planning book for two years following its publication in 2012, and its contribution to the field in the 21st Century is seminal. The Tenth Anniversary Edition came out late in 2022, and the update begins on page 263. Compared to the response to the original edition, the update has received much less attention.

Some things have mostly stayed the same over the last 10 years. The evidence keeps piling up about the benefits of walkability, for example. It reduces obesity and other chronic health costs, crime, pollution, ambient noise, and urban heat islands; it increases life spans, neighborhood vitality, worker creativity, social interaction, intergenerational connectedness, and other good things in life, Speck reports.

Walkable places are still undersupplied in the market. “Depending on who you listen to and when they conduct their polls, somewhere between 45 and 55 percent of the American public would prefer a home in a Walkable neighborhood to one with a big yard,” he writes. “Meanwhile, the number of Americans who live in walkable communities has been estimated at one in 10.” 

In Walkable City, and before that as co-author of Suburban Nation (with Duany and Plater-Zyberk), Speck connected the design of the entire built environment with walkability (It’s not just about sidewalks, crosswalks, and “complete streets”). In 2012 and for much of the next decade, it seemed that walkability was on course to transform the built environment in the near term. Yet troubling trends emerged to interrupt that scenario. One is a spike in pedestrian deaths beginning in the 2010s that shows no signs of relenting—pedestrian deaths rose a shocking 63 percent from 2009 to 2020 in the US.

Why so many pedestrians are dying

Two factors account for the epidemic, Speck explains. First, as cities become less affordable, many low-income people move to places never designed for walking, yet they walk because they can’t afford to drive. There’s a term for that trend: The “suburbanization of poverty.”

The second factor is the dominant rise of SUVs, particularly large ones. Unlike sedans and other low-slung automobiles that send pedestrians over the hood when struck, big SUVs and pickups force people under the vehicle, which is far more deadly—even at lower speeds.

Another trend, especially evident since 2020, is a growing demand for living outside big cities. By making telework far easier, Zoom has a significant impact on cities in general and downtowns in particular, Speck reports. “COVID and Zoom have allowed many Americans to decamp for greener pastures. For some, this has meant the country or the suburbs. But many others have moved to smaller cities and towns with less overblown real estate markets, places with decent main streets that just needed a little more juice.”  

Downtowns primarily consisting of office space, especially mid-sized cities like Des Moines and Omaha, “are remarkably traffic-free, both in cars and on foot,” he writes. In other words, some downtowns are dead zones following the pandemic. Some experts have proposed converting many of these office buildings to residential, but that’s very difficult. “Washington DC has created a special program to incentivize it, but most office floor plates are too fat, and the desire for operable windows adds an expense that can be prohibitive,” he explains. There is a silver lining, however. “What is easily convertible to housing are surface parking lots, which most midsized cities possess in abundance.” That aligns with another big trend—eliminating minimum parking requirements.

It's not news to urbanists that parking affects walkability, as do many other aspects of the built environment. The surge in municipalities and states addressing parking minimums relates to housing, which has become prohibitively expensive for residents of many regions, prompting state action. Speck approves of a new Massachusetts law requiring every city and town with significant transit service to zone for apartments around stations. “As an example, Wellesley and Weston, two rich, rail-served suburbs, would be required to create zoning capacity for enough apartments to increase their housing stock by a full 25 percent,” he writes. 

The focus on transit makes the Bay State law “smart and sustainable,” he says. He worries that some sweeping code reform efforts, such as California’s SB9, will result in sprawl. The law effectively eliminates most single-family zoning in the state by allowing up to four units to be built. He explains that by not tying this reform to transit service, California ensures that much of the development will take place where walking is difficult.

Car-free housing

The proliferation of cul-de-sacs in the mid-20th Century was bad for walkable cities, yet “the next great thing in walkability” is called Culdesac, says Speck. That’s the oddly-named firm trying to revolutionize housing by making it car-free. The first development, Culdesac Tempe, recently opened in the Phoenix area. 

“In many American cities, more than 50 percent of the land area is pavement for moving and storing vehicles. In Culdesac, the same amount of property will be dedicated to paseos, courtyards, plazas, and parks. While it has access to transit, it will also include coffee shops, restaurants, markets, coworking spaces, pools, and other amenities on site.”

The idea might catch on quicker if it were legal in more places, he explains. “Tempe had to change its rules to allow a car-free community, and this remains the case almost everywhere, save for a few shining examples like Buffalo, Minneapolis, St. Paul, San Francisco, Berkeley … the list is growing.”

Some of the most exciting trends in walkable cities don’t directly involve walking—instead, they relate to biking, another means of human-powered transportation that can be considered an extension of walking. Over the last 10 years, bike-sharing programs and bike lanes separated from traffic have revolutionized the biking experience, making “life noticeably better in more than 60 American cities,” he explains. He calls separated bike lanes “the future of cycling.” 

But that could also be said of the proliferation of e-bikes, which substantially extend the range of human-powered transportation, overcoming barriers of distance and geography for ordinary cyclists, including older riders. What a difference 10 years makes because e-bikes were not even mentioned in the original Walkable City. Speck’s first reaction to e-bikes was that they would reduce the health benefits of bicycling, but this turns out not true—at least for the pedal-assisted variety. (E-bikes come in two kinds, those with throttles that don’t require pedaling and those that give you extra power only when you pedal). The latter “are great for you,” and just as healthy as regular bicycles, he writes. “E-bikes are a potentially transformative technology for our cities. The federal government has spent more than $10 billion on tax breaks for electric cars. The same money spent on e-bikes would have ten times the impact,” he argues.

The effect of bicycle lanes on gentrification has become a controversial issue in recent years, with some critics calling them “gentrification lanes.”

Social justice implications

But that derogatory term is not earned. “A ten-year study of 11,010 miles of new bike lanes across 29 US cities found that, while cycling facilities often follow gentrification, gentrification does not follow cycling facilities.” The truth is that investments in walking and cycling disproportionately benefit low-income and disadvantaged people. “The reality is clear: fully 38.5 percent of bike commuters come from the poorest 25 percent of income earners, and people of color rely disproportionately on cycling to get around their neighborhoods,” Speck reports.

While the 2021 edition of Walkable City organized the broad benefits of walkability under wealth, health, and sustainability, Speck adds a fourth heading, equity, in the update. In doing so, he admits to a “lifetime of insufficient awareness of how car culture disproportionately punishes people of color and other marginalized populations.” He sees things differently due to the 2017 publication of The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, which alerted the planning profession to the importance of equity, Speck notes.

The Tenth Anniversary Edition also has much to say about electric cars, autonomous vehicles (AVs), and ride-hailing services, three technologies that have come to the forefront since 2012. Uber and Lyft have had a terrible impact on cities, Speck argues. For every mile a person rides in one of these services, three miles are added to vehicle miles traveled. This has resulted in a massive increase in traffic congestion in many cities, he explains.

AVs have been much slower to take hold, and for this Speck is grateful. “The conclusions worth remembering are that full autonomy in our lifetimes seems unlikely, and it is hard to model any partial-autonomy scenario that is not dystopian.”

By contrast, “The data on electric car performance is better than we thought and getting better every year, as electrical grids become cleaner. It’s true that adding the battery almost doubles the carbon impacts on manufacture, but that impact is typically offset within six to 18 months of driving.”

Clean electricity and electric cars will help save the planet, he says. “My issue is that they are not enough to save the planet, and yet they get all the attention.” What will help save the planet but get little attention? Walkable cities.

Many other topics are related to walkable cities, covered in this update, not the least of which is health. “The percentage of obese Americans rose a solid 24 percent from 2008 to 2018, and our driving lifestyle deserves much of the blame.”

Living in a place where walking is part of the daily routine makes people slimmer, and improves their mental outlook. “People who walk 8.6 minutes a day are 33 percent more likely to report better mental health,” Speck notes. 

Social connectivity is one of the foundations of good health and long life, and community design supports that outcome. Speck cites the classic research of Donald Appleyard, “who in 1982 compared the social lives of people who lived in streets with and without heavy car traffic. He found that while people on lightly traveled streets counted an average of 3 friends, people on busy streets average 0.9 friends.” Friends are a good thing in life, and more robust community ties are a big selling point for walkable cities. 

Walkable City is the exception in the New Urbanism library because it has no illustrations. Rather, Speck uses words to create a thousand pictures for readers. The new sections of the Tenth Anniversary Edition are written the same way, and Speck is a master in the persuasive use of language in the service of urbanism.

Get Walkable City (Tenth Anniversary Edition): How Downtown Can Save American, One Step at a Time.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit. Dolores ipsam aliquid recusandae quod quaerat repellendus numquam obcaecati labore iste praesentium.